Friday, February 4, 2011

Hercules and Maciste, Nos. 7 and 7 - Maciste Against Hercules in the Vale of Woe (1961)

Sigh! This was bound to happen. Hercules was popular. Maciste was popular. One was a rip-off of the other. Both had been greatly popular. Then they were less popular. But they wished to remain popular. They had no more creativity. As a desperate gambit to stay relevant, without carefully thinking out their franchises at all, instead the two greatest peplum money machines decided to do a beefcake combo, and cross over.

The notion of crossing Hercules and Maciste is pretty danged foolish on the face of it. Normally, such crossovers, especially when “Versus” or “Against” is in the title, are to determine on a staged arena which of two fictional characters would win in a fight. That’s the reasoning behind Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, King Kong vs. Godzilla, Alien vs. Predator… But to see which legendary strongman, Hercules or Maciste, is the mightier, this is a retarded notion. It has to do with Maciste, a non-mythological figure (hailing, we saw, from 1914’s Cabiria), who wasn’t so much of a Hercules copycat as he is Hercules, sans the more specific mythological trappings, granted a different name for legal reasons. This is even more the case with the Macistes of the 1960s, which specifically ape the Hercules character in every way possible, even using former Hercules actors with no variation in their “personas.”

The notion, then, of Hercules fighting Maciste is like having two clones of equal size, strength, agility, mindset, whatever, having them fight. It’s a zero sum proposition. Even so, a Hercules vs. Maciste sort of endeavor does have promise, simply in guaranteeing two beefy he-men in one movie. Despite the heaping helpings of flexed and bulging man muscle throughout the rows of extras is past pepla, to join together two of the mightiest champions like, say, Steve Reeves and Mark Forest, now this could yield something!

Kirk Morris at least has some claim to the Maciste character, having played him in the wretched Maciste vs. the Headhunters. Frank Gordon never played Hercules before, never played Hercules again, and was never in a single other movie. This is his only motion picture, which doesn’t augur well at all.

But even those reduced expectations cannot prepare you for the “cinema as apocalypse” that is Maciste Against Hercules in the Vale of Woe – a title that has no meaning whatsoever, not just the “Vale of Woe” part (“the wretched goodbye?!”), but even the “Maciste AGAINST Hercules” part. Though “Woe” does sum up the movie perfectly.

Woe n.
1. Deep distress or misery, as from grief; wretchedness.
2. Misfortune; calamity

Let us forget everything I’ve hypothesized so far, and debate an entirely different prospect. What if you were to make a parody of the peplum? Why, the genre’s askin’ for it, with its endless years of highly formulaic B-grade trash. Shouldn’t be too hard to lambast the general homoeroticism, the submoronic beefcake stars, the political, social and racial misassumptions, the air of cheapness, the misapplication of ancient mythology… I could do on. Point is, pepla are mockable.

Well, I’m askin’ for satire is what I’m askin’ for, when most peplum parodists prefer the palatable pastiche approach. Hence any comedies which attempt to use the sword-and-sandals framework for humor use it as just that – a framework. It isn’t the subject of mockery in any substantial way, just a delivery system for whatever other sense of humor is preferred. This is the Three Stooges Meet Hercules approach, which I hasten to add is not a part of the Hercules franchise, despite hailing from 1962, since it was produced outside of Italy. (It is of a different franchise – the Three Stooges – which I must get to one of these days.)

Forget all talk about a crossover – though it is a crossover – for Maciste Against Hercules in the Vale of Woe is really a comedy, a peplum apart from the others. One would hope that, even if it has no grand deconstructive intents, such an enterprise could yield something entertaining and, above all, unique in this damn subgenre, this valley of woe – which is what they ought to have called it, if such a thing were in the movie, because at least “Valley of Woe” makes some sense.

Nope, Vale of Woe doesn’t work by those specific lowered expectations either. It barely works at all. It surely doesn’t work as an example of mere competent filmmaking, as director Mario Mattoli prefers a static, listless proscenium approach which Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria was already evolved beyond. Seriously, this film knows less about cinematic grammar than something produced in 1914! All this coming from a man who’s magnum opus is called For a Few Dollars LESS – Stop it, you’re killing me! This must surely be the absolute dregs of what the Italian film industry was putting out, for it’s hard to picture filmmaking worse than this which doesn’t encroach upon Hal P. Warren territory.

This movie is like slow death.

The premise? Two modern day boxing promoters – whose names I didn’t catch until the final reel, and even then they are unlisted on the IMDb, which is just as well – are hard on their luck, and their recent panoply of fightin’ midgets ain’t doin’ them any good. I…I did think I was watching the wrong movie. Then they happen upon a time machine, helpfully exposited upon by a stereotypical German mad scientist to thin air. Plotting to pull a Back to the Future Part II ploy, and bet on sports, these promoters try to go into the future – into the far off year of 2,000 A.D., arbitrarily the furthest this thing’ll go.

Instead they’re shot back to 5,000 B.C., to a historically inaccurate world where demigods, Minotaurs and Gorgons roam freely.

Pause. Even now there could be some value to Vale. What if two genre savvy fellows suddenly encountered a real life peplum, to cleverly exploit with their knowledge of the genre, to point out its foibles? The promoters have none of that. These are panicky and slow-witted neurotics, these are, in some sickening Italian attempt to mimic the Abbott & Costello routine for all it’s worth. It goes to show how skilled Abbott & Costello were at their art, for these two unidentified mooks have no sense of timing, no change in tempo, pitch, comedic desperation, wit. It’s not even like a normal guy thrust into the realm of fantasy; it’s sheer comic abstraction, a duo of unrealistic, unrelatable, unfunny sods.

That they seem to speak in puns, which is awkwardly translated and dubbed into English, doesn’t help. The humor could be good in Italian, but the filmmaking on display would still be shite.

Even NOW things are potentially salvageable. The residents of ancient Mycenae could be shown as the straight men, serious foils to the disgusting comic holocaust that are the boxing promoters. Rather, they are equally grotesque comedic buffoons, damn well most of them acting with the same degree of knee-jerk panicky terror as the moderns. Then there’s poor King Eurytus, who’s essentially a camp homosexual – and not in a clever, satirical sense. Nope, in a “isn’t gayness itself to be laughed at?” way.

Though I love a good time travel story as much as the next guy, this is the worst kind of comedy. There is a lot built upon the trusty anachronism, as the ignorant ancients gape in sweaty awe at the promoters’ matches, their umbrellas, their fireworks, all sorts of other stuff they honestly should’ve have had room for in their pockets. It’s like A Kid in King Arthur’s Court, or Black Knight, only at least this one doesn’t steal from “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” so brazenly.

Some of the humor tries for the same style (and subject matter) as Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part I. In many ways, Vale of Woe resembles good forms of comedy, which goes to show how important the nitty-gritty things like tone and wit are.

Oh, right, and the sets, the costumes and visuals and such, feel like a middle school play.

Then there’s Hercules, who is king in this version. (What follows here goes for the late-coming Maciste as well.) Unlike the rest of the Greek populace, all racing around, arms flailing, going “Whoop whoop whoop whoop!,” the strongman is a beacon of calm and restraint. That’s not to say he’s the elusive straight man (in all meanings of the term); Hercules is just a mere nonentity. We’re talking a muscleman non-actor of such anti-charisma, all he can do, all he can do, is stand and flex. Like with Eurytus’ gayness, this isn’t some wry commentary upon a real peplum’s shortcomings; this is a real peplum’s shortcomings, magnified in the bad way through excess incompetence. Hercules is a Ken doll.

Something which passes for a story eventually pops up after enough abortive sketch routines pass by. Hercules grows angry at the boxing promoters, falsely thinking they had plans upon Deianiera (who is all breast in this one). The promoters flee into the wilderness, pursued by two fishermen who have the exact same personalities as the promoters. Then, movie more over than begun, they finally run into Maciste. Oh, right, I forgot, this movie has Maciste in it!

Maciste has a wife in this version, an unnamed and unidentified harridan with the most irritating tic I’ve seen passed off as a joke in quite some time. She repeatsepeats the ending of nearly everyery word she says, when given the opportunityunity. She starts out calling the he-man “Macisteiste,” which devolves into “Macisteisteiste,” then “Macisteisteisteiste,” then so forth from there until I cannot take it anymore and I must kill something! I considered mimicking this…thing more here, but I thought it would be aggravatingavating.

The promoters realize Maciste is as strong, dumb and angry as Hercules, and is basically the same guy. Thus they scheme to make Hercules and Maciste fight each other – mostly because that’s what you do when crossing over franchises, and also so they can somehow use this wrestling match to get their time machine back (oh, right, Eurytus confiscated it). Of all the ways you could get Hercules and Maciste to battle (these films specialize in so much magic plot juice, a potion would’ve been much more believable)!

Maciste cannot just go and fight Hercules, as there’s a detour concerning Circe waiting in the wings. I’m not even going to comment upon this, this misapplication of myth, this misunderstanding of the essential seductress element of all pepla (Vale of Woe can’t even get its own genre right). This Circe is like a worse version of Rita Repulsa from “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,” and the jokes are awful.

How awful? Here’s an indicative example. Night falls…No, wait, night happens, it goes from midday to pitch black in the change of a single frame of film. Wow, they even messed up the notion of night filters! And the promoters, far from anticipating the natural setting of the sun, instead think they’ve both spontaneously gone blind. How do such goons function in their own time even? They run around whining like bad Woody Allen impressions, then each smacks into a tree. Actual animated stars pop up, and…That’s the joke! [Rim shot!]

Then the time comes for the great matchup, “Herc vs. Mac,” only…only even now it doesn’t quite happen. Hercules fights one of the promoters, for reasons as dumb as the boxing finale from Meatballs Part II. I don’t want to discuss this. But even a motion picture as cripplingly disabled as this one knows it must eventually get Maciste and Hercules to clutch each others’ hot, sweaty bodies for at least some while. I don’t know if it’s contempt on their part, or simple idiocy, but when the great matchup happens, it’s so fast I’m lucky I was able to catch a screen shot.

How long did you look at that picture? It was longer than the movie grants us, I assure you.

The boxing promoters suddenly, in a very confusing edit, discover their time machine in the center of the same place that was formerly an anachronistic wrestling ring (one set!). They return to modern Milan with no character arcs and Biff still tormenting them.


Well, not only does the movie not tell us, but the boxing promoters don’t even know. They actually lampshade this fact, as though such a middle finger of an ending is somehow funny in and of itself. Now, I’m used to open-ended crossover resolutions (Freddy vs. Jason), but those offer some room for debate, for interpretation. This leaves its ostensible central plot thread instead an unresolved, 3-second shot, and nothing else.

It’s even amazing this thing counts as a part of either the Hercules or Maciste franchises, let along feature a repeat Maciste. Welcome to the weird world of Italian film production. But consider how little screen time is allotted to either bodybuilder. Kirk Morris kept on making serious Macistes, and this would be but a blip of time for him. It’s likely the thing originated as a solo Mario Mattoli project, with some Brand X musclemen in place of Herc or Mac. Then, in my hypothetical film history, Mattoli approached the producers of both official franchises, requesting use of their names. Cartoon dollar (or lira) signs flashed before the producers’ eyes, as they’d hardly have to flex a muscle. A movie would occur, one way or another. And even ‘twere it awful (as it was), it can only mean a little more money for their coffers, nothing more. Artistic integrity wasn’t an issue, never is in Italian film (excepting those movies Criterion puts out), and proper entries could continue on regardless.

So there you have it, how a thoroughly abortive bait-and-switch Herc/Mac crossover could come about in the respected wake of Hercules in the Haunted World and the…“MST3K”-worthy wake of Maciste, the Strongest Man in the World. Likewise, more entries would follow the Vale of Woe, making that “wretched goodbye” titular meaning false as well. We’re not halfway through with our peplum project, leaving Vale but a disfiguring facial wart on the movement. And I’m about ready for a break.

The Silent Maciste Franchise (1914 - 1927)
• Hercules No. 1 Hercules (1958)
• Hercules No. 2 Hercules Unchained (1959)
• Hercules No. 3 The Revenge of Hercules (1960)
• Hercules No. 4 Hercules vs. the Hydra (1960)
• Maciste No. 1 Maciste in the Valley of the Kings (1960)
• Maciste No. 2 Maciste vs. the Headhunters (1960)
• Hercules No. 5 Hercules and the Conquest of Atlantis (1961)
• Hercules No. 6 Hercules id the Haunted World (1961)
• Maciste No. 3 Maciste in the Land of the Cyclops (1961)
• Maciste No. 6 Maciste, the Strongest Man in the World (1961)
• Hercules No. 8 Ulysses vs. Hercules (1962)
• Hercules No. 9 The Fury of Hercules (1962)
Maciste Nos. 8 - 20 (1962 - 1964)
• Hercules No. 10 Hercules, Samson and Ulysses (1963)
• Maciste No. 21 Maciste vs. the Mongols (1963)
• Hercules No. 12 Hercules in the Land of Darkness (1964)
• Hercules No. 16 Hercules and the Tyrants of Babylon (1964)
• Maciste No. 22 Maciste in Genghis Khan's Hell (1964)
• Maciste No. 23 Maciste and the Queen of Samar (1964)
• Hercules & Maciste Nos. 17 & 24 Hercules, Samson, Maciste and Ursus (1964)
• Hercules No. 18 Hercules and the Princess of Troy (1965)
• Hercules No. 19 Hercules the Avenger (1965)

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